Tuna fresh

New sets, new costumes but same classic cast as ‘Tuna Christmas’ rings in the new year in North Texas. So what is life like there in a post-DADT world?

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  |  jones@dallasvoice.com

105_Vera_lounge
FELIZ NAVIDAD, LUPE! | Vera Carp (Jaston Williams) will have a traditional, Christian Christmas if she has to kill for it. Welcome to Tuna, Texas.

A TUNA CHRISTMAS
Eisemann Center,
2351 Performance Drive, Richardson. Dec. 28–Jan 2. $29–$59.
972-744-4650.
EisemannCenter.com

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It’s not that Jaston Williams dislikes Christmas — it’s that growing up, it wasn’t exactly The Brady Bunch Holiday Special.

“We always called Christmas ‘blood and holly’ around my house,” Williams cracks with his signature Texas twang. “My mother could really make it rough. When there was company or a party you’d go from this loose experience to Franco’s Spain in a second. I figured it out by the time I was a teenager that I wasn’t wild about this holiday at all. This whole nostalgic, let’s-go-home-for-Christmas thing? Nah. Give me a good hotel with an open restaurant and room service anytime.”

Still, the holiday has been pretty good to Williams. With his writing, acting and now producing partner Joe Sears, Williams is enjoying more than 20 years of steady winter employment with A Tuna Christmas, which returns to the Eisemann Center for a week-long run Tuesday. The first sequel to their hit play Greater Tuna (nearing its 30th anniversary), it’s the only one of the shows to have a run on Broadway (earning a Tony nomination) and has been a staple of the season.

If you haven’t seen it (what’s wrong with you?), it tracks life in a tiny Texas town on Christmas Eve as the quirky residents (all played by Williams and Sears) reinforce and undermine stereotypes about small-town attitudes. And even at its age, it still seems fresh.

“We wrote is as Reagan had just come into power — that’s how old we are,” Williams recalls of the original play. “It was in response to the Moral Majority and their idiotic notions” — and Tea Partiers aren’t far removed from that. And contrary to popular opinion, they do not update the script.

“People constantly say, ‘You’ve added so much!’” Williams says. “I don’t even deny it anymore. Especially with Tuna Christmas we’re trying not to change things — though God help you if your cell phone goes off with Dede onstage. It’ll be like being locked in a phone booth with Patti LuPone.

“The temptation to comment on what’s going on today is so strong that if we started we’d never stop. So it’s set in time. No one in Tuna has a computer; they still have cords on the phones. And no one tweets — they’ll fine you. Vera has banned the word. It sounds dirty enough to ban.”

None of which is to say the show doesn’t get a makeover every so often. The duo still rehearses regularly, tweaking bits and polishing moments, and the current production features all-new sets and costumes.

“Joe and I are producing it ourselves now,” says Williams. “All these people who produce theater and want people to think it’s really, really hard so they won’t do it. But it was kinda like being in the Mafia. You think, ‘I’ve been watching this jerk kill people for 15 years — why can’t I do it?’ We’ve scaled it down and made it better. I’m very proud of it.”

Williams himself is closer to living the Tuna experience than ever — though its different in many ways to the one imagined 30 years ago. He and his partner, Kevin, moved with their adopted teenaged son to the little burg of Lockhart, Texas, and are proud to see the culture developing.

“One thing I can say about small-town people is, they believe their lyin’ eyes: They see two men raising a child and taking out the trash and they are changing their attitudes [about gay people]. It’s pretty amazing.”

(Williams is tickled as most gays are “don’t ask, don’t tell” was repealed, though, and thinks it was dumb to enact in the first place: “I was in the gay bars in the ‘70s. You get the right lesbian pissed off with weapons and they’re gonna take some territory. The ones who should really be afraid of gays in the military are our enemies.”)

The guys are off from performing Dec. 24 and 25, but will be doing a New Year’s Eve performance in Richardson, which Williams calls “one of the stranger nights of the year to perform, You really want to do a good show but it’s such a bizarre holiday. People feel obligated to have some transformative experience and they know they aren’t going to.” Though if they go to Tuna, they just might.
Merry Christmas, Jaston.

“And a Merry Tyler Moore to you, too,” he answers.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 24, 2010.

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